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“The whole thing was a circus, so I played the clown”: Laurie Penny talks to Jonnie Marbles

Jonnie Marbles, who was imprisoned after attacking Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie, talks about his time inside.

Activist and comedian Jonnie Marbles was jailed for two weeks for attacking Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie. Millions around the world watched as the 26-year-old lobbed a plate of shaving foam at the ageing billionaire during the select committee hearing on July 17. I came to meet him on the day of his release from Wandsworth Prison, where he talked to me about activism, fatherhood, and what life's like on the inside.

Hi Jonnie. How was Prison?

Prison was less scary than you might imagine. The first day I was in there, still feeling quite nervous and not knowing where I was, I went back into my cell during the social hour to make a cigarette, and four people stood around the door looking out for the guards. I thought, oh no, here we go, and this small, beefy guy came right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said 'Are you Jonnie? Murdoch sent me.' And a tiny bit of my brain was convinced I was about to have my first prison fight. Then we both broke into these huge grins and shook hands, and he got me to sign my autograph on a copy of the Sun! I ended up in the same wing that Charlie Gilmour was on, and I understand that he made friends there as well.

So - why the pie?

Some people I met in in prison said I should have thrown a grenade instead, but I'm not a violent person. There's a tradition in comedy of throwing pies at people - it shows they're human, it shows they can be brought down to size. Rupert Murdoch is one of the reasons that democracy hasn't flourished in the way that it should in the Western world. I try not to hate people, but it's hard not to hate a man who does so many bad things. I talked to a few friends about it first, most of whom thought I was joking, but I was quite determined that, if the opportunity arose, I was going to put a pie in Rupert Murdoch's face.

You were attacked by Wendi Deng. Did she draw blood?

At the time I thought she'd missed, but the next day I looked in the mirror and realised there was a scratch right across my face. It was probably the adrenaline, and the sheer weirdness of the situation. Time slowed down, as it does at those moments. I felt scared, i knew it was something that was going to be a big deal one way or the other, and i just focused on getting it done. She stood up, and I just managed to get it onto his face, then she scratched me across the face, and - fair play to her - picked up the pie and threw it back at me. I have this really clear and vivid memory of looking into her eyes, and seeing something really deep and scary there. Love's always a good thing, no matter who it's between. But to portray her as a ninja or some sort of Asian tiger, like the press have been doing, strikes me as racist, and actually takes away from what she did, which was very brave, at the end of the day.

Some people say you interrupted the course of justice...

During Tom Watson's speech, I actually thought, "maybe I won't have to do this, he's bringing this man to such amazing account that i can just go home.' But during the rest of the hearing I started despairing, because no-one was asking the Murdochs anything incisive. If we'd had ten Tom Watsons sitting around that table i wouldn't have done what I did.

I think the reason that a lot of people were so negative is that they really thought they were watching a trial, a trial I had interrupted. But a select committee has so few powers. The judge at my appeal compared what I did to contempt of court, but if they had been in a court I wouldn't have done it, there'd have been no need. If we had any real justice in our society, the dock is exactly where the Murdochs would have been. Instead, it was a circus, so I played the clown.

You received a lot of criticism for your stunt. Were you surprised?

A lot of people think I did this for publicity, and maybe that's understandable -if I wasn't me, I'd probably think the same thing, but actually I hadn't thought about the aftermath. Over the two weeks while I waited for my court hearing, I basically stayed in hiding. The day afterwards I had to go out, so I put on a hoodie and shaved my beard off as an attempt not to get recognised - but funnily enough, I found I hadn't got any shaving foam left - I'd used it all on the pie!

I was shocked at some of the reaction in the media and on Twitter, and some of it really upset me, because clearly some people thought it was so wrong, and I've always respected other people's opinions. I did question what I'd done afterwards. But the fact that I've also had a huge number of positive reactions from people makes a difference. I can't name names, but some celebrities and MPs sent me notes to say well done.

You weren't expecting to be sent to prison, though.

When I heard the verdict, I was in shock - nobody had expected me to go to jail, but the judge in my case, Daphne Wickham, is known for being very hard on protesters of any kind. I kept a brave face while they took me down, but I did get very upset during the processing period, I actually did cry, because I started thinking about my son, and how upset he'd be, and how he was going to have to come back from the holiday we had been planning to take together. Luckily, one of the guards was very nice to me - he didn't seem to care what I'd done, just saw another human being in distress. People are awesome - people are the best thing there is in this world, and we should all care about each other more

So what was your routine like in prison?

I was taken straight to Wandsworth, where you're locked in for about 23 hours a day in a small shared cell, with a television, two bunkbeds, a little desk, and a toilet with a curtain that you pull across so the other person doesn't see you. Wandsworth is one of the worst prisons in the country. All I could do was sit and write to my friends. For the first few days inside I found myself trading tobacco for paper, and I very quickly had a bit of a racket going on!

Prison isn't like American TV dramas. You get given a rubbish red or blue t-shirt, a rubbish pair of jogging bottoms, a rubbish grey jumper, and a welcome pack with a plastic knife, spoon, cup, fork and bowl, one piece of writing paper, an envelope and a pen. Most of the food is so horrible that you end up throwing it away - they're given about two pounds per day to feed each prisoner.

The thing that really struck me about prison was how nobody cares about you. Your fellow prisoners care about you, but the institution doesn't care about you. I didn't get to make a phone call for six days, because the administration is incompetent, even though I needed to sort out childcare with my ex-wife. Apathy and incompetence is no way to punish people - it doesn't breed respect for the system, it just breeds contempt.

On my last day of prison, I went along to the church service, partly becuase it got me out of my cell for an hour - you quickly learn how important that is. So I sang along with the hymns, and then one of the ministers started talking about Rupert Murdoch, and how powerful God is, and how if you wrong him he'll humble you. The minister said, Murdoch is a man who kings and heads of state would bow down to, and then he was put in front of the committee, and a man came up and threw a pie in his face: praise be! I went up to the minister afterwards and said, "I hadn't realised i was doing the Lord's work.'

Your real name is Jonathan May-Bowles. Are you secretly posh?

My mum was a librarian and my dad was an accountant. I had a relatively normal middle-class upbringing in Windsor, and went to a grammar school. I became a father when I was seventeen, so I went straight to work for Ladbrokes for three years, which was a fascinating experience. I got involved in activism almost by accident in 2009, when I went on the Great Climate Swoop as a favour to a friend of my sister's - my sister is an amazing activist and a great inspiration to me. I just turned up, and suddenly I'm running through the woods being chased by horses, trying to improvise consensus decision-making with people I'd never met before. It was one of those moments where you know, instantly, that nothing's ever going to be the same again.

My family have been completely on side. My mum said the most wonderfully mum-ish thing in the world - she said, 'I don't think that was a wise thing to do, but it was very brave.' My girlfriend has been amazing. The next day, when I was dealing with all of the press in the world trying to get in touch, and Twitter, and all the criticism, she was the person who made me shut down the computer and go to be

Was it strange, being inside during the riots in London?

I was actually moved wings because of the riots, they needed space in E Wing. The response from prisoners was interesting - some of them were annoyed they couldn't be out there looting as well, and some of them were absolutely appalled. At least it meant that people suddenly wanted to watch the news. Before that, Come Dine With Me is what we were mainly watching. Endless, endless episodes of Come Dine With Me.

More and more young activists are being imprisoned, some of them for much longer stretches than you. Do you have any advice for them?

Firstly, you get used to prison very, very quickly. Try to find positive ways of using your time while you're in there. Don't just vegetate in front of the TV, no matter what everyone else is doing. Even if they're not giving you work programmes, you can write, you can read, you can talk to other people, you can meet some of the most fascinating and amazing people in there, whether or not they're good people. I don't think prison helps anyone - but activists need to not be scared of prison if we want to change the world.

Are you sorry?

No, not at all. If anything, I'm less sorry now than I was before prison.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”